Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Observations on Super Mario Maker

Super Mario Maker is a new video game for the Nintendo Wii U system that allows people to create Mario levels.  I can't claim to know everything about it, but I have watched a lot of videos online and I have played the demo of it at the mall.  It is incredible.  Using a stylus and a grid system, you can create your own Mario level maps in the graphic styles of Mario 1, my favorite, Mario 3, Super Mario World and Super Mario U.  It is everything fans have dreamed of for years, although there have been unofficial hacks bouncing around the internet for some time.  I will be buying it the moment I have significantly more money.

In terms of its design and what it lets you do, the game is nearly everything it has promised to be.  Some critics, though, have complained about the feature of playing uploaded levels from around the world as, not surprisingly, the average video game fan is terrible at making new levels.  As critics have noted, the levels lack a sense of design aesthetics, they are more concerned with being challenging to the point of stupidity than fun and they are bloated with game elements and armies of minions on-screen, thus reminding us of how restrained the real Mario games are.

This was inevitable.  Game design is more than just the technical elements of programming which this software is designed to bypass.  It is harder than many think.  When introduced to all the toys and elements of a Mario game, it is tempting to load up.  Quality game designing is usually a tedious process.  I don't think most people have the patience to make a great level.  Another reason for bad levels is that most levels are played as one-offs.  This almost requires people to make really hard gimmick levels.  Normal, organic levels don't play as well outside the context of a full game.  Think of the first level of Super Mario Bros.  It's an iconic piece of video game history.  It works great as a first level to a game, but it would just be a boring, easy level if it was played by itself.  Folks can currently make level sets, but only up to four in a row.  I think of classic Mario games as involved epics, like sitting down to watch Lawrence of Arabia.

I think of Mario levels as being one of four types, although there may be more.

Four Types of Mario Levels

Crap- For lack of a better term, I will call the first kind crap.  These seem to be the most common in Super Mario Maker.  These are the kind with little or no attention to design aesthetics.  They are as though someone vomited gameplay elements onto the screen.  They are bloated, ugly and little to no fun.  Some say these levels shouldn't be criticized as those who uploaded them are just having fun, but I disagree.  They have wasted the time of other gamers with their trash.  Playing levels is an important part of Mario Maker as well.

Organic- These are levels like Super Mario Bros. 1-1 that have some design aesthetics, but are also a little loose and feel organic.  Different gameplay elements mix in a way that feels fresh and surprising, neither overly structured, nor sloppy.  This is the approach of many of the earlier Mario games.

Formalist- These are levels where the design is more evident.  These are often built around a single gameplay element or challenge and steadily build in difficulty, like many of the levels in Super Mario 3D World or level 7-7 in Super Mario Bros. 3.

Ultra-formalist- This takes the formalist approach to the furthest meta level, fully playing around with sheer aspects of gameplay, even things you barely knew existed and glitches.  The one-screen puzzle levels being made on Super Mario Maker are a great example of this approach.

Which approach is the best?  I don't know.  Certainly the last three are valid.  The second two are the approach of every professional Mario game and my favorites, but the final is valid.  My favorite levels are usually challenging organic levels, but as I stated above, I view Mario games as wholes.

The game, of course, still has some minor flaws and missing elements.  To some extent, I believe this is on purpose so that people will buy more pieces and so some creative fan won't render future Mario games obsolete.  As you can only play level sets up to four, there are no world maps, one of the coolest parts of Mario 3.  With less Macro play, there is no need for a second player.  The level select menus show a miniature version of the entire level map which is definitely a spoiler.  For some reason question boxes can only carry the exact item that you designate them to and not a mushroom first if Mario is small.

Having played a demo of the game myself, I can say it is intensely fun.  I did my own level design with a pre-existent level template that I added some extra minions to.  There are a surprising number of web posts on the design aesthetics of Mario games, but I will end with an expanding list of what I consider the most important don'ts of designing a level with Super Mario Maker.

  1. Don't make a level where Mario can get stuck and have to reset.  Either kill him or have a door or tube to reset a situation.
  2. No more Rube Goldberg device levels.  The gimmick wears off after one.  It's a lot of wasted time and energy to create a level that can barely be played.
  3. Don't start a level off with an instant death.
  4. Don't kill people with a surprise invisible block.
  5. No cheap rooms leading to instant death.
  6. Don't stack non-flying minions on top of each other.  It's a silly gimmick and looks dumb.  They are all making walking motions so they should be walking off of each other, but instead stay on top of each other.
  7. If your level ends with a flag, don't make it impossible for Mario to touch the top of the flag pole.

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